The original idea for this article was to examine the different evil races, which I will probably still do, but I noticed that the Monster Manual has quite a few water-dwelling evil humanoids. A lot of them sort of blur together for me so I wanted to do a breakdown of each evil fishperson and how they are different from one another.
Now, we’ve got to have some rules to avoid putting every intelligent water creature on this list. To be on this list the monster must have the “humanoid” subtype and explicitly be part of a race that has its own described culture and society, which rules out Merrows. They must also be explicitly primarily water-dwelling creatures, which means that Grungs, who are primarily jungle and tree-dwelling creatures, do not get on the list despite being frog men. Lastly, it must me an evil race according to their creature entry, which rules out Merfolk. So, let’s start by looking at the…
Bullywugs, Foul Frog-Kings of the Swamp
Bullywugs are Neutral Evil, but their society is modeled like a half-built empire that no one wants to acknowledge is falling apart. These creatures are devoid of both guile and charisma, often relying on brute force and being led by the biggest of their kind, but they consider themselves to be nobles of the highest order. They fancy themselves as kings and princes and pretend that their piles of garbage and much are actually glittering mansions full of priceless treasure.
What immediately stands out about the Bullywug to me is that there’s only one monster entry for them, implying that there aren’t many elite Bullywugs out there. They spend their time mucking about hunting for baubles and capturing intruders into their land if they’re able, but given that they’re not exceptionally strong they would be pressed to successfully raid even a lightly guarded travelling party. This means that most of their captives are probably lost travelers who stumble into their territory or stragglers from caravans who get separated from the crowd unless one of the Bullywugs can organize a particularly large raid.
The Monster Manual describes these frogmen as having a severe inferiority complex, basically trying to shout as loud as possible and hoping that no one works up the gumption to shout back. Their lords crave the fear and respect of other races, and constantly demand tribute from their underlings. For a Bullywug to rise through the ranks they must either win the Bullywug Lord’s favor with gifts, or murder their rivals to put a bigger spotlight on themselves, but unlike the stereotypical evil aristocracies they cannot let their crimes be discovered or they face execution.
Bullywugs are the first aquatic humanoid you to be found in the Monster Manual and they also make very good starter enemies for an adventure. They’re aquatic, but since they live in swamps they don’t require you to get on a boat or go into any briny depths to battle them. They give you a relatively accessible area to venture into, and while they are not smart they can provide social encounters as the players attempt to bribe, beg, and bully (HA!) their way into a Lord’s favor or out of his clutches, depending. The biggest problem with them is that they don’t have any scaling in the rules-as-written. Even though the book describes abnormally large Bullywug Lords, they have no stat line, leaving little room for variety. The book does talk about the race’s ability to communicate with amphibian creatures, though, giving some room for a group of giant-frog riding frog people raiding the hero’s caravan as a way to kick off an adventure.
Kuo-Toa: Madness in the Deep
Okay, I’m going to level with you, I’ve always sort of ignored the Kuo-Toa in my games because they look silly and I always wondered how I would make them seem scary or threatening. The reality is that Kuo-Toa are terrifying if you look past their weird and creepy but also silly looking faces to see that they are simultaneously the effect and the cause of Lovecraftian Horror.
If you haven’t actually ready their Monster Manual entry and aren’t familiar with their lore, Kuo-Toa were once very simple creatures before they were enslaved wholesale by Mind Flayers and generations of psychic oppression have led them into madness. Now they lurk in the deep caverns of the Underdark worshiping gods of their own insane creation. Now, take note that I said creation, not imagination, and that’s because Kuo-Toa are so crazy that a big enough group of them can pray so hard that the God that they imagine can grant spells and take physical form. This means that the Kuo-Toa have potential to be enemies that span your entire adventure from small skirmishes with the average Kuo-Toa at level one to battles with a madness-born god at level 20.
Now they don’t have the entire toolkit built into their Monster Manual entry, since even the strongest Kuo-Toa listed only goes up to CR 6 and they didn’t get any expansion in Volo’s guide, but the concepts are all already built into their description and there are plenty of monsters you can pull straight from the MM to add to a Kuo-Toa themed adventure. Maybe there’s a Mind Flayer or an Aboleth guiding them from the shadows. Maybe you don’t want to build an angry dark reaches madness god from scratch, but something like an Elder Brain or even a Kraken could serve that purpose easily enough.
The Kuo-Toa’s residence in the Underdark also opens the door for a lot of side adventures. I’m generally not a huge fan of the Underdark because I’ve always heard it presented as basically synonymous with Drow and Mind Flayers, who I’m not super interested in, but the people who write the Monster Manual seem to really love that place because it feels like it’s where most of the Monster Manual resides when I skim through it. This means that putting your evil humanoid race down in the deepest reaches of the Underdark can set the stage for excellent adventure that keeps your heroes in somewhat familiar spaces even when you need a break from fighting same or similar enemies.
Sahuagin, Raiders of the Deep
I want to like Sahuagin more than I do. When I looked at them I thought they were meant to be the go-to evil fish race and that might still be the case but as I look at their entry in the Monster Manual they just seem kind of… boring. They’re basically sea-Orcs; always evil raiders with no sense of mercy or compassion. They’ve got a built-in hatred of Sea Elves and a kinship to sharks, which is kind of cool I guess.
The one thing from the Sahuagin’s Monster Manual entry that could make things pretty interesting is that they are apparently prone to various mutations. Their leaders are giant mutants with extra arms, for example, and sometimes Sahuagin are mutated to resemble Sea Elves, which allows them to act as spies in Sea Elf communities. This doesn’t do much on its own but it creates the possibility for a dedicated Dungeon Master to really play with the possibilities of Sahuagin mutation. This could probably at least open the doors for a some exciting encounters if you’re willing to put in the work and you could probably leverage it into an interesting narrative if the Sahuagin mutations are starting to make them a bigger threat to civilization as a whole. Sahuagin large enough to capsize ships? Sahuagin that can not only raid but occupy land? A massive Sahuagin the size of a submarine that opens it’s mouth and other Sahuagin come pouring out like soldiers from a dropship? This sort of thing is where the potential lies with these particular fishmen and a creative DM can get a lot of mileage out of it, but there aren’t a lot of building blocks available in the Monster Manual itself. They don’t even have any interesting background or cultural information to work with other than “likes violence, hates stuff, no mercy” which makes them the least interesting aquatic races I’ve looked at.
What’s your favorite aquatic race? Did I leave out something important? Do you actually think Sahuagin are the best? Let me know in the comments below or on twitter at @ADetectiveGamer or on Facebook at facebook.com/thegamedetective, or just by using the links on the side.